Three-step approach to eternity

We understand eternity by removing things from time, but time has three levels of transcendence which allow us to flesh out the account of eternity by extrapolating the data points that get plotted by progressive removals.

1.) Time in the natural worldWe can draw attention to four features:

a.) Distinct events. This event is not that one.

b.) Irreversibility of events.  Minimally, earlier events always happen before later ones and not vice-versa.

c.) Continuity of events. To get from one moment to another one has to go through indefinite other moments.

d.) Exclusivity of perfections. Perfections peculiar to one state can’t be enjoyed at another. What belongs to the earlier as earlier can’t be found in the later as later.

2.) Time in animals with memory. 

The distinction of events and their irreversibility remains, but the animal’s memory and anticipation allow it to experience the past as past at later times, and to “leap over” all intermittent times.  The animal, however, has this knowledge and acts by it without his knowledge itself being an object (animals see physical things, but not physics; living things, but not biology) and in this sense the exclusive perfections of time (1) are overcome only unconsciously. .

So (a) and (b) remain, but (c) drops out and (d) is overcome, but only subconsciously.

3.) Time in intelligences. 

Both human beings and the angels experience the distinction of events but some events (like premises in an argument) have a before and after without having a temporal before and after, and they are known at once without this being a temporal at once. It is meaningless to talk about the time interval of modus tollens or the the general gravitation equation or a moment in which either makes its inference. Intelligences are also conscious of their own consciousness and so compare their acts to the world, causing it to be experienced as true or false and in other ways that transcend time (1) and (2). Nevertheless, this overcoming of the exclusivity of time is merely intentional or mental and not real.*

So (a) remains, (b) and (c) drop out and (d) is overcome consciously. Nevertheless, there is no overcoming of (d) in the real order but only the highest possible intentional order.

4.) Eternity. 

At this level the possession of perfections transcends limitation to the cognitive order and becomes real. Past events thus have all the perfection of fixity and certitude, but lack the imperfection of frozenness or unreality. Future events maintain all of the perfection of being anticipated and containing indefinite possibility while losing the imperfection of being impenetrable to intelligence. The present maintains its reality and its power to surprise while losing its fleetingness and fixity of the action occurring within it. Any being who lives here not only compares his belief to the world, but sees his world as containing all the reality that is ontologically divided at the lower levels. In a way similar to time (3) this containment of all times occurs at once, but not in the at once of time. Asking when eternal beings exists makes only as much sense as asking when abstractions or laws exist.

So (a) remains as a notional distinction and all the rest drop away entirely.

*That said, it is not obviously and straightforwardly true that there is a meaningful answer to when an intelligence (like your own, say) exists. Intelligence exists when its act does, and its act is an abstraction. But when does an abstraction exist? How long has it done so?


  1. robalspaugh said,

    May 25, 2016 at 9:57 am

    I was thinking about this a few posts back on your time-eternity binge. Does our memory of past objects make us quasi-eternal? You seem to be poking around this with your footnote. The object is uprooted from the past, we are uprooted from the present, our lifespan now exceeds biological conception and death. It seems like if the soul is, in a way, all things, then we are, in a way, eternal.


    • May 25, 2016 at 12:57 pm

      What I call stage 3 time is only vaguely time: logical inferences have priority as distinct events but it’s not an easy thing to see how they have time values or locations in time. If I strike a table it makes sense to speak of when this striking occurs, and to occur at this time is essential to this striking, but if I give a theorem at noon the theorem does not get any essential time reference. “Twelve o’clock theorem” is not at all the same thing as a twelve o’clock shooting or twelve o’clock meeting and it only has a very vague and ad hoc truth. It’s not even clear if it makes sense to speak about a theorem as “this theorem”. But theorems are what minds do, and so this is as much a character of one’s mind as focusing light is a character of the eye. Intelligence is both abstract and concrete, and so has to have any eternity of abstract things.

  2. May 26, 2016 at 12:35 am

    I’m a bit new to Thomistic philosophy, so forgive me if this question reveals my ignorance, but is there a specific Thomistic approach/view to the A vs B theories of time prominent in modern physics and other philosophical corners?

    • May 26, 2016 at 9:00 am

      It’s hard to see how even the loosest Aristotelianism is compatible with a Parmenidean denial of the reality of change, and so if one takes B theories as ways of having temporal order without change, or if one sees all those committed to the reality of change as A-theorists, then STA counts as one.

      All Aristotelians take time as a measure and number, and so asking whether time is real/ a feature of nature is like asking whether meters or pints are real or a feature of nature. They’re real enough, and no one can deny that if you have a blue whale you have 100 feet of something, but it’s just as obvious that meters don’t arise as features of the natural world. Something is similar for numbers – one can’t answer whether a six pack is one thing or six any more than he can answer whether one rotation of the earth is a whole day or a part of the year. In one of those fascinating passages that I’ve since lost track of, STA argues time is mind-dependent and in the absence of mind one has only imperfect existence – and he then goes on to say that the same is the case for motion and change.

      DeKoninck (though a disseration he advised) argued that the sensible in act is always a mix of objective and subjective features, and that it is impossible in principle to know what proportion of each is found in the resulting whole.

  3. Jacinta said,

    June 1, 2016 at 6:47 pm

    Do you have any recommendations of places/books where I could learn more eschatology? (Esp. about eternal life)

    Also, did you come up with the idea of eros not being exclusive at the end of the world by yourself or are there places that I could read about that, too?

    • June 2, 2016 at 9:25 am

      The texts I keep going back to for insight into eros are Symposium and Roger Scruton’s Sexual Desire. Ideas of transcendence get a very good development in R.C. Neville and in some of the later manual Thomists (I’m in debt to Grenier’s account of the transcendence of being in the third volume of his Cursus Thomisticus). I have the greatest debt to Raymond Ruyer, whose magisterial text has just been translated into English as Neofinalism. I don’t follow any of these guys on every point but they’re all particularly rich claims to mine.

      Joseph Ratzinger’s Eschatology gives a good sense of how contemporary theologians have thoroughly rethought eschatology, and many of the positive developments in this rethinking (the eschatological nature of Christ’s message that sought to have his Kingdom on heaven and earth) are in N.T. Wright. Wright expresses himself particularly well in public speeches and so has become a YouTube sensation, but I’ve profited from reading his Resurrection of the Son of God, though it is not the briefest way into his teachings on eschatology. He lays out the thesis of his book here. Skip to about 8:50.

  4. Jacinta said,

    June 3, 2016 at 3:09 pm


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